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Pattison, Sampson, Ginsberg & Griffin, PLLC wins precedent-setting decision on religious exemptions

Troy, N.Y. – Michael E. Ginsberg, Esq. and Rhiannon I. Spencer, Esq. of Pattison, Sampson, Ginsberg & Griffin, PLLC were successful recently in representing Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute against a suit brought by three former students who claimed their religious freedoms under the First Amendment and New York State Human Rights Law were violated when the school instituted a policy requiring all members of its community to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination in order to attend.

“Legal battles have been waged throughout the country over whether the refusal to consider religious exemptions violates federal and state rights,” said Ginsberg. “This decision is a victory for colleges and universities that have enacted policies in an attempt to protect their communities. COVID-19 vaccine exemptions can now be managed as the institutions see fit.”

“This is an important precedent in the fight to protect the safety and health of our communities,” added Spencer.

The Hon. Martin D. Auffredou, Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, Warren County, denied the motion of the plaintiffs for injunctive relief and dismissed their complaint in its entirety. The judge awarded summary judgment to RPI, declaring that the university had not violated the law or its own antidiscrimination policy.

RPI’s mandatory vaccination policy, which applied to students, faculty, and staff, was implemented in an effort to contain the COVID-19 virus. RPI’s policy did not provide for religious exemptions to the vaccination requirement.

“The policy was adopted and implemented based on the latest then-available medical guidance in an effort to protect the health and safety of the entire RPI community, the wider community, and the home communities of the students,” said Ginsberg. “There was no intent to discriminate against any student’s individual religious beliefs.”

When the policy was first implemented, each of the three plaintiffs applied for a religious exemption. All three received notice that a final decision was made to deny their applications, citing worsening pandemic conditions as the grounds for denial. They were also informed that continued enrollment at RPI depended on them obtaining the vaccination; none of the three complied.

Subsequently, one student took a leave of absence from the college; the other two were notified of their disenrollment. In January 2022, the three former students filed their lawsuit, alleging RPI violated Executive Law §296 (4) and RPI’s own antidiscrimination policy by disenrolling them on religious grounds and requesting an injunction returning them to active status. The lawsuit also sought $27.5 million in damages.

In his decision, Auffredou stated that RPI’s evidentiary submissions “provide substantial detail about its deliberative process, the information and evidence upon which it based its policy decisions and the reason for doing away with the religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine requirement.”

Further, he noted that “the policy change was not ‘actuated by discrimination,’ and plaintiff’s ensuing disenrollment under the revised policy was pursuant to a general rule applicable to all members of the RPI community, regardless of religion, motivated by the need to control the spread of virulent disease among its population (Eastern Grey Hound Lines, 27 NY2nd at 283-284).

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